Western national carriers British Airways, KLM of the Netherlands and Germany's Lufthansa have recently begun direct flights to Azerbaijan capital Baku, in anticipation of an oil boom which is expected to increase passenger and cargo traffic to the region.

Bina International Airport in Baku, however, is dogged by problems which appear to be insurmountable in the foreseeable future. Little official data are available from the Azeri authorities on the airport's infrastructure, equipment and procedures, but pilots, groundcrew, operators and passengers all have horror stories to tell.

Diplomats and other sources in Baku point to corruption, low wages and bribery as the root causes of most of the problems affecting not only the airport, but also other essential services and the country's basic infrastructure.

Azerbaijan gained independence from the former Soviet Union in December 1991. Since then, the country has been plagued by a war with neighbouring Armenia, a series of coups and uprisings and a steadily declining economy. Average annual income for the Azeris has declined from an estimated $1,215 in 1991 to $500 in 1996.

The one area of optimism lies in Western exploitation of the country's oil wealth. First commercial pumping of the newly developed oilfield is expected by mid-1998, but, to exploit this new-found wealth, Azerbaijan requires an efficient transportation infrastructure, not least for air transport.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan was left with a run-down 3,100m2 (10,000ft2) paved runway, antiquated air-traffic-control (ATC) systems, an outdated terminal and little experience of running an airport. Despite the construction of a second runway and a new terminal, Western airline officials say that the improvements are cosmetic only. Pilots still complain of dangerous ATC procedures and passengers are left bewildered by the bureaucracy and lack of services at the terminal.


Potholed runway

The original potholed runway is under repair, with finance coming from a German Bundesbank loan, and may reach acceptable standards. The so-called "new" runway is a substandard construction and requires urgent repair, as do the two taxiways, according to one on-site source. On the ramps, there are many pieces of metal protruding from the paving. There is insufficient lighting on the approaches to the terminal, and "-ATC is appalling", says the source, and this is confirmed by a Western pilot, who says that, during one take-off, he was cleared for take-off while still taxiing; was not told the height to which he should climb, or in which direction he should turn, and was not advised as to other traffic in the area. "I must have spoken to at least half a dozen traffic controllers. They kept passing me from one to another because they had difficulty in communicating in English," he says.

Western airlines operating from Bina find that they have to pay airport workers "commissions" to carry out functions for which they are already being paid a salary. It must be said, however, that an airport worker's "salary" may be only $40 a month.

It is common in Azerbaijan for a family to "buy" a job for a son or daughter - whether in the airline industry, the police, postal service, or any other place where salaries can be augmented by kickbacks. It is also not unusual for a person to hold down as many as half a dozen "full-time" jobs, which makes it difficult to arrange for groundcrew to turn up on time.

"Few staff have the inclination to do a job properly; have the savvy to do a job properly, or even want to do a job properly," says one Western airline representative. "Once you find someone who can be trained, you have to pay them a substantial amount [in Azerbaijani terms] to keep them loyal and productive. For example, I pay a loader $120 a month to do his job properly, although he is paid a salary of $35-40 by the state to do that job. If he puts a high-loader through the skin of an aircraft because he either doesn't care, doesn't know better, or can't be bothered, that's going to cost my company many thousands of dollars," he adds.

Because of the system of purchasing jobs, many employees are not qualified to carry out basic procedures. One airline official gave as an example a situation whereby a loader had to carry out a simple job, but said that he had not been trained to do that task. He left a high-loader parked against an aircraft and took the keys away with him. Payments had to be made to find someone else qualified to complete the task, but 6t of cargo could not be loaded. The Western airlines would like to bring in their own ground handlers, but the Azeri authorities will not allow this.

A staff canteen is under construction at Bina, with completion, once promised for December 1996, now expected by mid-1997. Even then, it is likely that meat and other perishables will have to be imported by the airlines, to meet health standards.


Poor equipment

One Western airline has paid for modifications to the fuel-filtering system, because of the danger of loading adulterated fuel into aircraft fuel tanks. Even so, the fuel bowsers still need to be checked before each flight.

There have been incidents where the airport has failed to pay its supply bills, even though fuel is paid for in advance by the airlines, so the fuel suppliers then close the taps to the airport. Incoming aircraft are diverted and delayed until arrangements can be made between the airport and the supplier.

"Communications are also a nightmare," says the source. "From the airport we have no departure-control system; no international telephone lines; no e-mail. Electricity supply and telephone lines are often cut off. The only reliable means of communication is the mobile phone system, but, because there is a monopoly in this country, it costs a fortune. No-one has any chance of breaking into that monopoly in the foreseeable future," he adds. International communications are planned for some time in 1997, but the type of system, or whether the date can be relied upon are an enigma.

The airline official says that there are only two sets of steps at the airport which are safe for embarkation/disembarkation. These are the presidential steps. "We are short of cargo tugs and baggage tugs - there are two and they've only just arrived. There are two belt loaders - only one of which is serviceable," he says.

"To be fair, the Azerbaijanis have bought some new equipment in the past few months, but they buy the cheapest possible equipment. It's slow, unreliable and constantly under repair. We sometimes have to pay extra to be able to use that equipment." One airline official comments that the only way in which Western operators can really make things work at Bina is for major competitors such as BA, KLM and Lufthansa to co-operate and share equipment bought by the airlines.

One airline has had to buy land at the airport for secure storage of its own equipment because "-otherwise it gets damaged or goes missing". A 1,000m2 plot of land can cost an annual rental of $4,000. A further $20,000 will have to be paid to have the area cleared and surfaced.

Reaching the airport can also be a nightmare. The city-to-airport buses "-are death traps" says one source. "They have holes in the floor. They are mechanically unsafe and are unreliable. One local bus recently burst a tyre and turned over, injuring many passengers." From downtown Baku to the airport is some 30km (18 miles), but this journey can take up to 1h, if conditions are good and the transport roadworthy.

On arrival, the newly built transportation ramp to the upper level of the new terminal is unusable, as the construction company "forgot" to reinforce the concrete ramp with steel. No vehicles are permitted to use the ramp, and passengers must either take their baggage up a narrow spiral staircase or some 200m (660ft) up a sharp incline, or pay the waiting porters to do it for them. The porters, however, have been known to disappear in the opposite direction to the passenger, together with their luggage. If Azerbaijan president, Haydar Aliev, is travelling (as he often does) in the area, all airspace and roads are closed and the terminal cleared, which can account for extended delays.


Dogged by delays

Packs of wild dogs roam within the perimeter. On occasion they have been known to delay flights, because they have attacked ground handlers, or airline officials have decided that it was not safe to board passengers, or because the dogs were on the runway. A system of eradicating the dogs by shooting has been suspended - not because of the dangers to passengers, staff, aircraft or fuel, but because it was deemed ineffective. No alternative has yet been found.

The new terminal itself is gloomy. Floors, when wet are extremely slippery. Dozens of customs, immigration, police and military personnel are in evidence. It appears that no-one has the authority to override decisions by another department, and delays to departures are frequently caused by airport bureaucracy. Customs officials are always on the look-out to "impound" exports, for no apparent reason, until "fees" are paid.

There are only two baggage scanners, neither of which are "film safe". The walk-through scanners are so sensitive that even the magnetic bands on credit cards are sufficient to activate the system.

Although official Azerbaijani projections and plans for the future of the airport are unavailable, the European Joint Aviation Authorities understands that national airline Azerbaijan Hava Yollari and British Airways have mooted the idea of turning Bina into a hub for the Caspian Sea area, serving Almaty, Askhabad, the Persian Gulf States, Tashkent, Tbilisi and Tehran. While the Western airlines have provided money and equipment to help their own aircraft movements, it is unlikely that any airline would be prepared to invest millions of dollars in basic infrastructure.

It is rumoured among Western diplomatic and airline sources in Baku that the Azerbaijan Government was unable to conclude terms for a loan from the European Development Agency (EDA) for an overhaul of the infrastructure, because the EDA demanded a full account of where the money would be spent. The EDA suspected that senior Government officials would be taking a personal cut of the loan and were not prepared to pay kickbacks as part of the loan development deal.

Source: Flight International